US President Donald Trump walks with Prime Minister Theresa May prior to a joint press conference at Chequers, her country residence in Buckinghamshire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday July 13, 2018. See PA story POLITICS Trump. Photo credit should read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
UK prime minister Theresa May with US president Donald Trump last year. On their current paths, the UK’s future looks decidedly bleaker than that of the US © PA

Picture the world a year from now. Donald Trump will be heading into a presidential election he might lose. It will probably be held against the backdrop of his imaginary wall with Mexico. On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK could be grappling with the collapse of the Irish Good Friday Agreement having crashed out of the EU. As a case study in erecting dangerously real barriers, the UK would be a step ahead of the US. The same was true in 2016 — the Brexit bombshell exploded four months before Mr Trump’s victory. In the contest to see which country is most in thrall to kakistocracy — rule of the least competent — America should be craving second place.

It is of course possible that the reverse will happen. Britain could engineer a soft Brexit, or somehow contrive to stay in the EU within the next 50 days. The Irish border would remain open and peaceable. Meanwhile, Mr Trump could pull off an earth-shaking victory in 2020. Most global citizens would prefer it to be the other way round. When America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. Another four years of Mr Trump would qualify as pneumonia. With the exception of Europe, particularly Ireland, the UK’s self-inflicted damage is mostly a parochial affair. Even if Britain goes over a cliff, most of the world will carry on as before.

On their current paths, the UK’s future looks decidedly bleaker. The biggest difference is that Brexit is probably for keeps while Mr Trump has a maximum of six years left in office. Whatever damage America inflicts on itself can always be repudiated at the next election. Britain, on the other hand, is flirting with a dramatic spiral downwards. A hard Brexit could lead to Scottish independence, a referendum on a united Ireland and a rump British politics that is forever embittered between Remainers and Leavers. It is possible a Trump second term would prompt California to consider seceding from the union. Or it could wait until 2024 to put one of its own in the White House.

Whatever happens, the US electorate will have a stark choice when it next goes to the polls: Mr Trump or the Democratic nominee. The same cannot be said for Britain. On the transcending issue of Britain’s future — its relationship with Europe — the Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn is robbing Britain’s electorate of a chance to think again. Mr Corbyn is a closet Brexiter. He is also a fairly open supporter of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and a fan of the type of socialism that a post-Europe Britain could ill afford. Meanwhile, the likely Conservative replacements for Theresa May would give Mr Trump’s cabinet a run for their money. There is no yardstick for measuring who would govern a country less responsibly — Boris Johnson, or Mr Trump. But we have the word for it: kakistocracy.

On that measure, the UK is also deeper in the mud than America. The latter is fortunate enough to have a federal system. State governors and big city mayors do plenty of effective things away from Washington’s toxic politics. The UK, on the other hand, is the most centralised democracy in the world. When its politics are poisoned, there are precious few safety valves. That is why the condition of Britain’s Labour party causes such angst. When democracy is working well, it offers possibilities. Like a second-rate fast-food joint, the UK has no good options. Whatever you order, it comes with the same greasy fries.

For the time being, America’s left is avoiding the siren song of Corbynism. This week Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Democratic congresswoman, announced she had spoken to Mr Corbyn on the phone. The minor panic that ensued was evidence enough that US liberals know what pitfalls to avoid. When Democrats talk about being “socialists”, as Mr Trump has been quick to brand them, they mean the kinds of things centre-right governments support in Europe. These include universal health coverage, tough regulation of monopolies and sharply progressive taxation. They do not mean Venezuela. That contrast alone is enough to give hope about the relative health of US democracy. But it is no reason to crow. If Britain is the only big democracy that is screwing up worse than you, it is best to keep calm and change the subject.

edward.luce@ft.com

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